How Merchandising Killed the Alien

In 1979, one of the most iconic monster designs hit the screens. Ridley Scott’s Alien brought a creature never before seen. An unholy mix of insect, snake, scorpion, and human skull – the alien looked nothing like anything ever before made. The work by artist H. R. Giger in creating the alien cannot be overlooked. It was terrifying, it made people scream and today… today it is one of the most mainstream, tired looking creatures out there. Wow, how the mighty have fallen in the past thirty-five years.

Close ups and shadow shots allowed the alien to remain largely unseen throughout most of the first movie. A great way to enhance the terror.
Close ups and shadow shots allowed the alien to remain largely unseen throughout most of the first movie. A great way to enhance the terror.

The destruction of the alien’s ability to terrorize did not happen overnight and is not determined by any single factor. For one thing, and this is true of any creation: the novelty wore off. Alien was brand new in 1979, but the creature has reappeared in five (kinda six) sequels since. Some of those films, such as Alien: Resurrection and AVP: Alien vs. Predator belong more in the action genre than in horror, so the alien was not always portrayed in the same terrifying way in those films. Horror sequels always suffer from the basic principle of ‘it’s never as scary the second time you see it.’

Yet there is another factor, one that separates the alien from many of the other iconic horror figures of the last forty years: merchandising. Merchandising that began back in 1979 with the release of this toy from Kenner:

alien+box_lgYes, there is no better way to undermine terror than to put it into the hands of a child. Yet this in itself was not the downfall. The toy did not receive a wide release and has become something of a collector’s item. Obviously parents were less than thrilled with the creation of an action figure for an R-rated movie and… well, it also does not look like a thing that most young kids would want to cuddle with at bedtime. So this toy, while it is the first, is not the creation responsible for taking the terror out of Alien. It is simply where the merchandising began.

New Alien figures would not exist again until 1992. This time Kenner released a whole slew of toys, ones that included very obvious changes. The Alien was not scary anymore. Nothing could make that more clear than this:

This is series 1 of Kenner's launch of Alien toys.
This is series 1 of Kenner’s launch of Aliens toys.

Based off the second movie, this line featured the gorilla alien, the scorpion alien, and the bull alien: all designs that were never featured in any movie. They were created in admittance of one thing: the original alien design was looking kinda old at this point. To keep kids interested, Kenner would have to continually reinvent the image, adding a new animal every time. This line of logic is nearly identical to Hasbro’s Transformers line. Yes, by 1992 – Aliens were the new Transformers. It did not stop there. Kenner would continue to create toys over the next few years, eventually bringing in the Predator franchise as well (years ahead of the crossover films).

I don't think this is every toy... but you get the idea.
I don’t think this is every toy… but you get the idea.

With the Alien image already gone, the merchandising eventually shifted away from children’s action figures to video games. There are twenty games based off the Alien franchise alone – without involving the Predator. For the most part, this video games were geared toward an older audience. Kids who had grown up playing with Kenner toys (like myself) could now take their experience interactive. The franchise has enjoyed several really well-made video games, with my personal recommendation having to be 2001’s Alien vs. Predator 2. The series has also suffered through low moments. Well, just look at Aliens: Colonial Marines

Behold the terror!

It is interesting to note that this year features the first Alien ‘horror’ experience in quite some time. Alien: Isolation tries to recreate the horror of the first movie, with the player taking on the role of a human who is trying to avoid and survive a single alien. The game has received wildly mixed reviews, with some calling it the return to horror that the franchise has been needing and others calling it a second Colonial Marines. Personally, I have not played the game so I cannot give it a review. It simply appears that the developers are trying to do the impossible. After all –

alien_isolation_6-100371845-origHow can this really be scary anymore? Just look at how terrifying Giger’s mighty alien has already become:

That child looks soooo afraid... that he won't get another toy.
That child looks so afraid… that he won’t get another toy.

If it wasn’t as scary the second time, how can it still be scary the fifty-second time?

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